A Transformative Journey at the Masorti Kehilla in Lisbon – Juliana

My name is Juliana Fernandes da Silva. I was born in a small city in Brazil and lived there until I finished my undergraduate studies, at the age of 21 years old. I then moved to São Paulo to obtain my master’s degree in Mathematics. After two years living there, I finally moved to Lisbon. I am currently a PhD Candidate of Mathematics at Technical University of Lisbon and I have been living here for almost three years.

     In the city where I grow up, we do not have a Jewish community and I was raised in a Catholic environment. Because of that, before I moved to São Paulo, I knew almost nothing about the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition. My parents are both Catholic and they are very traditional in the sense that they believe in a very authoritarian pedagogy. When I was a child I did everything they asked me to do in which concerns religion. I studied religion at the church when they asked me to do it and went to pray at the church whenever they thought I should go. As a teenager, I was compelled by them sometimes to pray at church with them on Sunday mornings. But that was not a regular activity and at that point I started to feel a little bit disconnected with the community and with G-d. My relationship with the Catholicism was strictly through them, maybe because of the methodology they used to give me a religious education. Then, as soon as I had the maturity to understand their relationship with Catholicism I felt disconnected. This is due to the fact that they are not very observant. After I begin to feel this way, going to the church was an almost mechanic activity.
At the University of São Paulo, where I was attending the master’s degree program, I met Edgard Pimentel, who is my boyfriend. He was born and raised in São Paulo, where the majority of Brazilian Jews live. As a consequence of that he had a closer relationship with Judaism than I had in our backgrounds. Even when we were still living in São Paulo, he used to talk a lot about Jewish customs and the few things he knew about the faith and history of the Jewish people. I remember I was fascinated by the commitment of the people. Something that always drew my attention was the fact that even with innumerous obstacles in their way, they seem to be obstinate in their beliefs. I thought that was very inspiring.
After some time living in Lisbon, Edgard felt inclined to look for a Jewish community. At that point I just thought that it was a very good idea. I was feeling that I wanted to know more about the Jewish faith and I also wanted to lend him some support. The decision to search for a Conservative synagogue came mostly from him, since at that time I did not know a lot about the beliefs distinguishing the branches in Judaism. We were very well received by the Conservative synagogue in Lisbon, Ohel Jacob. We then started to attend the Kabbalat Shabbat services almost every weak. Edgard was overwhelmed by our experience at those services. I was very happy for him but at the same time I was always very clear with him about my feelings. We agreed to talk to each other after each service about how we were feeling with that new experience. Sometimes Edgard told me that he did not want to eat, for instance, a cheeseburger. As we agreed to be completely honest to each other all the time, I sometimes answered him that I really wanted to eat a cheeseburger but if it was important I could join him eating only a cheese sandwich. We began this journey in a very peaceful way even when we were on different pages.
After three months that we were attending services, Rabi Jules Harlow and Rebbitzen Navah Harlow came to Lisbon for their wonderful and continuous contribution to Ohel Jacob. We arranged a private meeting with them and we had a very clarifying conversation. Subsequent to that meeting, we have had a magnificent guidance by this lovely couple.
The first thing I wanted to do after that meeting was to read and learn and that was what I did. I began with the book To be a Jew, then I read the book Living Judaism. I also studied about the history of the Jewish people, with some help from Edgard, since as a Mathematician I usually have a hard time with history. I read the Parashah each and every week on the Shabbatot. With the crucial assistance of Pray Tell, I learned a lot about the services and about davening. Above of all, through the weekly correspondence by e-mail with Rabbi Harlow, I have significantly improved my knowledge. I also have had Hebrew classes since February 2012. Simultaneously, since the beginning of this journey, I have been trying, without hurrying, to observe the Shabbat and also to keep kosher. I have succeeded in both spheres.
In which concerns the Shabbatot, I must say that I feel something very special about it, which goes beyond the common sense of what Shabbat means to a Jew. It is of course a special day. It is a day to contemplate the creation of the world and to refrain ourselves from any kind of work. With that in mind, I think that each observant Jew gets his own special feeling during and from Shabbat. I am not an optimistic person, on the contrary, if I do not have enough reasons to think that something is going to work, I will certainly feel that I will have a problem. But I usually feel mysteriously optimistic on Shabbat. It is the only day on the week in which I do not wake up early and do not read anything about Mathematics. I usually stay at home reading something about Judaism or I go for a walk. I can say that, after I learned and got used to preparing everything in advance for receive this special day, Shabbat is a very rewarding and meaningful day. With respect to keeping kosher, I shall say that it was neither easy nor fast to get used to it. But after some time I was able to have a strictly kosher diet. I have a book called The Kosher Kitchen: A Practical Guide, and with it’s and Rabbi Harlow’s help, I now keep my kitchen kosher.
One of the most remarkable experiences during this journey was certainly the trip I made to Jerusalem. I went to the Conservative Yeshiva for its Ulpan program. It was a very unique experience. The people living there are very lovely and I felt really well received by them. I remember walking with Edgard next to the Yeshiva on Shabbat when a complete stranger passed by us and with no hesitation said out loud: Shabbat Shalom. That was a really remarkable moment for me and I know that I will never forget it. It was as if there was a common sense of holiness involving the Shabbat and its place in Jewish tradition. We saw, on each Shabbat there, people on the street really well dressed and happy, and that was like we were sharing our Shabbat with each of them. People did not even have to talk to each other to know that there is something very special connecting them. The experience of being in Jerusalem, especially on Shabbat, was very moving.
In the beginning of this journey, the first steps were usually taken by Edgard, but I am very happy and proud to realize that now I do have my own relationship with Judaism. I have then decided to continue in the Masorti community for its tolerant, egalitarian and inclusive approach. I admire the Conservative movement’s claim for modernity while at same time they have an urge to preserve tradition. I think the movement succeeds when supporting both values. I had an amazing experience at the Masorti Kotel in Jerusalem when I could pray with my boyfriend on Tisha B’av. Being part of such movement not only fulfills me as an individual but also allows me to act as a woman in order to establish a more reasonable end egalitarian world based on Jewish values.
My experience so far, learning and observing Jewish law and tradition has enabled me to connect with God in such a way that I enjoy completeness. It is rewarding to have a purpose in life and live it in a meaningful way. From the moment I get up in the morning to the moment I go to bed at night, I am continuously grateful for G-d’s love and kindness, contemplating His creation and guiding my life by the Mitzvot. It is really rewarding when we are able to recognize the major role God plays in our lives and I am very fortunate for have found a Halacha, path, to do that.